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Putin makes rare international trip to Iran amid isolation from the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi pose for a photo before talks in Tehran on July 19. (Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool/AP)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin, shunned by much of the world after his invasion of Ukraine, traveled to Iran on Tuesday in a show of deepening ties between the two nations, united in their isolation from the West.

Putin met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi soon after arriving in Tehran, and then with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Later in the evening, he held talks with both Raisi and Erdogan, part of his first trip outside the former Soviet Union since the start of the Ukraine war in February.

Khamenei said the West did not want Russia to be strong, describing the United States as “cunning” and NATO as “dangerous,” according to Iranian state media. “As regards Ukraine, if you did not take the initiative, the other side would have initiated the war,” IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying, echoing a common talking point from Putin.

Putin also discussed trade, energy, transportation and the conflict in Syria in his meeting with Raisi, who is emerging as a key ally of Moscow.

Ukraine live briefing: Putin meets with Erdogan and Raisi in Iran; Ukraine’s first lady to White House

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to limp off his plane on arrival in Tehran for a meeting with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 19. (Video: Associated Press)

Putin admitted Monday in a meeting with government officials that Western sanctions had created “colossal” difficulties for the Russian economy. He has sought to expand trade with China, Asia and the Middle East to make up for plummeting imports from the West. Putin’s only other international trip since February was late last month when he flew to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

In his meeting with Raisi, he extolled growing trade ties with Iran, sending a message to his Russian audience that while Western companies have left the country in droves, Moscow still has reliable friends. “We can boast of record figures in terms of trade growth,” Putin said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia and Iran were used to Western sanctions, which he called the price of their independence.

“Iran has been under sanctions of various sorts for decades … which, as we should point out outright, we view as absolutely illegitimate from the standpoint of international law,” Peskov said in comments to Iranian media broadcast on Russian state television.

He said that improving relations with Iran was “a long-term line of our foreign policy,” adding that a strategic cooperation deal will probably be signed in the coming months.

The White House has voiced concerns that Russia wants to acquire armed drones from Iran for use in Ukraine, but Peskov said this was not on the agenda in Tehran. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the United States has no evidence that a drone sale between the countries has been completed yet.

The presence of Erdogan, who has tried to position himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, raised hopes that he could help build on progress made last week in Turkey, when Russia and Ukraine agreed to preliminary steps that would allow grain shipments to resume from Ukrainian ports.

Russia is blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea shipping routes, including the major port of Odessa, contributing to a global food crisis as the price of bread, cooking oil and fertilizer soars. More than 100 ships laden with grain are estimated to be stuck at port or at sea.

U.N. officials, who are also helping to broker the grain agreement between Ukraine and Russia, said more work needed to be done. During a news briefing Monday, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, said that “we don’t have any particular expectations” that a grain deal will emerge from the three-way meeting in Iran. Since the talks in Istanbul last week, he added, “we feel that incrementally, there’s been a little bit more progress made, but there’s nothing to announce at this stage.”

Putin sounded a similar note at the outset of his meeting with Erdogan, saying, “It’s true that not all issues have been resolved yet, but the fact that there is movement is already good.”

The leaders were also discussing Turkey’s plans for a military incursion into northern Syria, targeting a U.S.-allied Kurdish-led militia. Ankara says the planned operation is aimed at pushing back fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it regards as a terrorist group.

But any military operation could put Turkey in conflict with Iran and Russia, which are allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have maintained military forces in the country.

Khamenei appeared to signal his displeasure during a meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday, saying that a military attack was “definitely to the detriment of Syria, Turkey and the region.” An aide to Putin, Yuri Ushakov, said before the Tehran meetings that Russia opposed any action that violated Syria’s territorial integrity.

But as the leaders gathered late Tuesday to address the media, Erdogan brushed off Russia’s and Iran’s opposition to his military plans: “I hear from you, my dear friends, that you understand Turkey’s security concerns. I am grateful for this. However, words alone are no cure for wounds.”

Erdogan also criticized attacks on civilians in rebel-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria, carried out by Russia or the Syrian government, saying they “undermine our efforts for a political solution.”

Putin’s visit comes just days after President Biden visited Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he spoke of fears that China and Russia were seeking to fill a power vacuum in the Middle East. “We can’t let that happen,” he said Friday in Tel Aviv.

“There is a reality in the region with Russia in the center of it,” said Vali Nasr, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “This has countered the United States’ belief that the dynamic [in the region] is about Israel and Arabs getting together against Iran. The Putin-Erdogan-Raisi meetings show that there are other players and dynamics beyond those in Riyadh last week.”

As the talks in Tehran got underway, the National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) and Russian gas producer Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding worth about $40 billion. Gazprom will help NIOC in the development of the Kish and North Pars gas fields and also six oil fields, according to Shana, the Iranian oil ministry’s news agency. Gazprom will also be involved in the completion of liquefied natural gas projects and construction of gas export pipelines.

Iran has the world’s second-largest gas reserves after Russia, but Western sanctions have slowed the development of exports.

Fahim reported from Istanbul. Tsui reported from Washington. Sean Fanning in London contributed to this report.

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